What’s In a Name

 What’s In a Name


What’s in a name?

That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.


In this hectic, fast paced, relatively indifferent world we often forget that given names actually have karmic meaning.

Most Western European names do have veiled meanings, but it is commonplace for no one to know what those meanings are. Ask anyone if they know what their name means and see what sort of inane response is conjured up. My name for example, which is a French derivative, means ‘harmonious’ although sometimes I am really not so sure about that. Neither is my wife, several former girlfriends or some of my closer friends.

American Indians used names and nomenclature as part of every day culture. It is much easier to immediately relate to the visually karmic image of a person named Running Bear, Soaring Eagle, White Dove, Red Cloud, Stinks When She Walks, Old Man Afraid of His Horses, Snapping Turtle or Crazy Horse than to conjure up a mental or visual image associated with a person named Johnny, Sally, Kathy, Joey or Phillip. But then again, the American Indian also had very different views of his environment than did the Anglo “nature lovers” who sailed over from Europe on wooden chariots only to initiate the process of systematically decimating the landscape and eradicating every living thing in sight.

Interestingly enough, after the Europeans had wiped out most of the New World’s indigenous animal and human species, they then proceeded to name their favorite sports teams, towns, counties, roads, lakes and ponds after the very extinctions they had just created. More like a vindication of self-righteousness than one of sincere regret, it certainly was not a ritual absorption of the living spirit of the dead.

Italians generally name after the Saints or members of the Holy family, with the general exception that they do not use Jesus, as is a customary male given name in South America. White Christians also tolerate hearing Jesus as ‘Hey-sous’ because this South American pronunciation doesn’t sonorously register as being blasphemous of their Lord and Savior. It is also customary for Italians to name their sons after the grandfather, which then causes the default of the given names skipping a generation. Daughters are named after Saints or The Virgin Mary except for the strange reason that they are also passionately fixated on other non-saintly but universally or by analogy, pleasing names like ‘Grace’ and ‘Rose.’ Whatever the name however, they always expect their daughters to behave like virgins, even after they marry and have children. They also want their sons-in-law to behave like Joseph. Be a good provider and buy her a house, but don’t tell me you actually ever had sex with my daughter.

The Italian middle name is derived from a godfather or godmother and is given at the time of Confirmation, which occurs at age twelve. My father’s middle name is Anthony, although I have no idea who this person was, as nothing about him was ever mentioned to me. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t such a saint.

Italian mobsters also confer nicknames, which are derived from some past heroic criminal act, being designed specifically as a cover to prevent true identification by law enforcement agencies. Anthony “The Snitch” told Augie “The Fence” that Angie “The Heist” and Sammy “The Gyp” was holding out on Joey “The Juice” and if they keeps it up, Johnny “Big Hits” was gonna have Vinnie “Wacko Whacks” call Carlo “Big Balls” a.k.a. “Mozzarella” and have the big cheese take care of “that business” once and for all.

It is also true that many Italians who came to America anglicized or shortened their names for an instant cultural fit. For example, Giuseppe Blanca would become Joe White or as the great professional golfer Eugenio Saracini changed his to become Gene Saracen. However, many others such as Joe Garagiola never bothered to change, as the translation to Joe Little House was infinitely worse than the Italian version and would only be acceptable to or be understood by a Native American Indian.

Southern Protestants generally give the first and middle name at birth. These names being frequently taken from some completely random relative as if seemingly being pulled out of a hat; often later requires much explanation for the logic, pure whim, or genetic derivation involved in making the choice. These people are not called ‘kissing cousins’ for nothing.

Northern Protestants do the same, with the exception that most names can actually be traced to some ancestor. It is many a poor son who gets named so and so ‘The Second’ or ‘The Third’ and has to be constantly reminded of the great ‘First’ whose reputations and accomplishments they are expected to fulfill or hopefully to exceed. Rarely do bloodlines other than European Royalty get to ‘The Fourth’ or further, as by that time someone is fed up with everyone having the same name or because of a rebellious wife who refuses to go along with the idiotic family tradition and expresses a desire for a totally different karmic naming.

There is also the peculiar quirk that many Northern Wasps end up with nicknames and sobriquets having nothing to do with any reality whatsoever, such as Muffie, Cookie, Buffy, Binkie or Biff. Or maybe even “Tim,” like my friend Dr. Weld who is really Francis. These adjectives usually have secret meanings that ordinary mortals could not possibly comprehend and produce clandestine guffaws along with furtive glances at family gatherings when the original derivation is rehashed in quips and abbreviated sentences, like it might be in Morse code.

  • Remember. We started calling him Binkie when…
  • Oh, yes. That was sooooo hilarious.

Once you are lucky enough to marry into the clan, you will then eventually become enlightened; or perhaps get your very own personal nickname too: “Bogey,” or “Mutt.”

The beauty however, of getting two names at birth is that one can arbitrarily discard either of the two if one or the other is considered unsuitable for oneself. My mother threw out Alyene and kept Ruth. My Aunt threw out Edna and kept Pauline, but then shortened that to Polly. Although her brother William had Howard as a second name, no one ever knew the significance of Howard, as did no one know the derivation of or even eventually remember the real first names of Ruth and Pauline. Thelma Jean simply went by “T.J.” and Robert Lee, presumably but not known for certain, partially named after the great Confederate general, was always known as Bobby or Bobby Lee. He could care less and always stated that many people had “often called me worse than that.”

Sometimes Northern Wasps will not throw out the first name but retain it as an initial and then go to the second name, such as “T. Elwood’ for example. After a while people stop asking Elwood what the ‘T’ stands for, because he hates it so much he never divulges it anyway and then says: “For the nth time, just call me ‘Woody.’

Jews in often defaulting to the Old Testament will use Saul, David, Abraham, Isaac, Benjamin and Ruth.

Either the laziest or possibly the most egocentrically psychotic naming pattern I ever encountered was at the Tufts New England Medical Center when one of my fellow medical students came back from a night on Obstetrical call to tell me that a woman had given birth to a son who was named Daniel Boone V. Each of his four brothers before him had the letters I-IV after their names, while their only sister was named Danielle.  Perhaps the proximity of the institution to Chinatown had something to do with the fact that this father could then rely on expedience when he needed to get their attention by referring to his children as: “Number One Son or Number Two Son or Lovely Only Daughter.” That would be better than when my mother would become confused about which of her three children she wanted for whatever reason, usually for a chore or to scold us about some mess she had found in the house, by just blurting out: “Alan-Larry-Peggy.” When that happened, we all hid in our rooms.

However if you subscribe to the Italian method of naming, meaning an obligation to wait twelve years to get your middle name, then you are just plain stuck with that one solitary first name you get at birth. That is of course except for the cruel nicknames, which may be imparted by your grammar school classmates, such as: ‘Four Eyes’, ‘Metal-mouth’, ‘Cookie Dough’ or ‘Binkie Blob.’ These monikers unfortunately will usually stick like napalm until high school graduation when one can finally leave town and start a new life in college. At that point you may call or nickname yourself anything you like, and think of it as your own personal witness protection program. I chose ‘Big Al’ over ‘Rich Al,’ even though I was neither wealthy, rich nor large.

Then there are the naming standards of the modern day Afro-American, which I personally do not understand, probably because I never asked, was afraid to ask or knew that the answer would be sublimely incomprehensible; even to them. This naming culture seems to have its origin at about the same time as the Civil Rights movement and as best I can determine is something more akin to making separatist identity statements than anything else. The names are not African, not conventionally Caucasian, and not even derived from personal ancestry. Some of them suggest a hint of French creole and some of them must only make sense in the mind of the mother. In any event, they are truly unique and certainly stand-alone. For example we have: LaDamian, LaTangella, LaDessa, Dachedda, Dorenzo, Quadravian, Tionda, Quillen, Jaber, Jewearl, Chante, Twana, Jordair, and LaToya.

But when I was a house officer in New York City the most extremely absurd name I had ever encountered was given to the eighteenth child of an Hispanic woman who called her daughter Placenta; because she overheard the Obstetrician exclaim how beautiful it was when he delivered the completely intact afterbirth. The mother’s name was no prize itself, Idioma, which probably described the benign tumor of her I.Q.; both when it came to naming as well as to an inability to keep her rutting legs shut or to voluntarily ferret out information about modern birth control methods. After so much in the way of malignant unchecked reproduction, she should have changed her name to Idiosarcoma.

Somewhere in the annals of history murder most fowl must have also been committed over the naming of certain offspring. My father wanted somehow and for some unknown rebellious reason, to break with Italian tradition; as well as not waiting twelve years on the timing. He had named his first son after his living brother and had wanted to name me after himself. My mother simply wanted: Alan…specifically with only one L.

Without mutual agreement he put his first name as my middle name on my birth certificate: Allan Salvatore. My mother, who hated his name, had already told him “No.” Then when she found what he had done, in a fit of peri-partum rage took a black ink and crossed out the middle name.

Yes, my parents were off to an all-around “harmonious” start…and so was I.  My first middle name was tossed out. There was an unexplainable black splotch on my original I.D., and the hospital was forced to issue a new one for legal reasons. The second birth certificate was spelled “Allan”, which was also unacceptable to my mother, who crossed out the second ‘L’ then simply took the piece of paper home with her; and so to hell with public records.

For years she categorically denied that my first name had anything to do with the one she had personally discarded herself, but the similarity to Alyene is close enough to warrant some suspicion. Perhaps she was thinking that if one gives his or her own unwanted name to someone else, it’s like purging or exorcising a personal curse.  To this day I wonder if the argument over it or even the missing letter has had any lasting effect on my own karma.


Birth certificate


So I’ll hang around as long as you will let me

And I never minded standing in the rain

No, you don’t have to call me darlin’, darlin’

You never even called me by my name.

(Steve Goodman)


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